History of Federal Law Enforcement

Updated on Dec 2, 2010

Unlike most other countries, the United States does not maintain a national police force. This may come as a surprise to many, who believe that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) fulfills that role. Although the FBI may be the best-known federal law enforcement agency, it shares jurisdiction with many agencies, the majority of which are much older than the FBI. Federal law enforcement, like the other areas of U.S. policing, is also fragmented.

A number of the earliest federal law enforcement agencies trace their histories to the colonial period, therefore predating the federal government itself. Among these are the Customs Service (now ICE), the Coast Guard, the Postal Inspection Service (PIS), and the Marshals Service.

Early federal law enforcers were assigned specific duties; this was because each agency was itself mission-specific. None were general purpose agencies similar to municipal police departments and, to a lesser extent, sheriffs' offices. Generally, the missions revolved around enforcing tax and tariff laws. The agencies were designed to enforce law violations that deprived either the government of funds or citizens of the few services for which they depended on the federal government. Thus, the Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of today's Coast Guard, was created in 1789 to address the problems of smuggling. The mission of its collectors, each of whom oversaw a port district, was to collect duties (taxes) owed the government. The duties were based on the weight of the ships coming into the ports or on the merchandise carried on the ships. Because the job involved collection of monies, it was placed in the cabinet-level Department of the Treasury under the authority of the Secretary of the Treasury.

This set the tone for the decentralization of federal law enforcement. The Marshals Service was also created in 1789; its mission was to provide law enforcement personnel to support the work of the fledgling federal court system. The Marshals had a particularly high profile in the developing western part of the nation, where they were called on to provide law enforcement services in areas with few organized police departments. In the late 19th and early 20th century, in Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma), and later in the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, U.S. Marshals were for many years the only symbols of federal control, much like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were in western Canada. In keeping with its history, the Marshals Service today, in addition to providing security at federal courts, and to administering the witness protection program, houses federal detainees and searches for federal fugitives.

Even earlier, the U.S. Post Office created a force of surveyors to attack the problems of mail theft. Although the current title postal inspector was not created until 1836, the Postal Inspection Service (PIS) traces its history to 1772, when Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin appointed surveyors to regulate and audit postal functions. The title was changed to special agent in 1801; in 1830 the tasks were centralized, even though the agents themselves were scattered around the country.

Initially concerned mostly with internal theft of the mails, this focus began to change in the 1850s when, as the mail moved west, mail thefts from ships, stagecoaches, and the railroads increased. Train robberies became more common after the Civil War; since a major target of train robbers was the U.S. mail, which at the time often contained cash and valuable goods, postal inspectors were assigned to many of these cases. As with many agencies, the PIS changed as criminal activity changed; beginning in the 1920s agents investigated a large number of fake lotteries, fraudulent advertising in newspapers and magazines carried through the mail, and birth control advocates who advertised or sent their products through the mail. Today, any crimes that involve the Post Office are investigated by postal inspectors. The crimes include mailing fraudulent documents and illegal substances, sending threats through the mail, commiting identity fraud, which often begins with stolen mail, and destroying of a public mailbox or other postal facility.

Indicating the broad range of federal law enforcement, another early force is one of the largest of the federal uniformed agencies. The U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) traces its origins to the appointment in 1801 of a watchman. Although he had only citizen's arrest powers, he was expected to protect the new seat of government when it moved from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. After experimenting with having U.S. Marines supplement the watchman service, in 1852 the Capitol Police was created. It was comprised of a chief, four assistant police officers, and two individuals who patrolled the grounds. From these fairly humble beginnings, the USCP has grown to a force of more than 1,000 officers. They are responsible for almost 200 acres of federal property, and also protect members and officers of Congress and their families. It is one of a number of all- or primarily uniformed police departments maintained by the federal government.

The Secret Service, established in 1865, was designated to investigate and prosecute counterfeiting of U.S. currency and, like the Coast Guard, was located in the Department of the Treasury. In the years after the Civil War, counterfeiting was rampant and the government found itself in need of vast amounts of money to support efforts to rebind the nation. At the time, it was estimated that as much as one-third of the nation's currency was counterfeit. The role of protecting the president was not added to Secret Service duties until 1901; today Secret Service agents are also assigned to protect the vice president, former presidents and their families, and candidates for president and vice president and their families.

Until it was overshadowed by the FBI, the Secret Service was the nation's leading general investigative agency; its members, termed operatives before the phrase special agent came into use, were often lent to other federal departments to assist in investigating complex crimes.

In part due to turf battles between the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice and in part to curtail the borrowing of Secret Service agents, in 1908 the DOJ created its own investigative agency, the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). Its agents lacked power; most were unarmed and few were held in high regard. After a series of scandals involving the BOI, J. Edgar Hoover was named director in 1924, a position he held until 1972, one of the longest tenures in U.S. government history. Renamed the FBI in 1935, Hoover moved from chasing alleged subversives (mostly Communists) to chasing bank robbers and car thieves. Although never a local police officer, he was able to position himself for decades as a spokesman for U.S. policing. Through use of the media and a talent for consolidating power, he was also instrumental in turning the FBI into one of the most recognized law enforcement agencies in the world, the topic of countless books, movies, and television shows and the one most often mentioned as their choice of employment by candidates who aspire to federal law enforcement careers.

Special Jurisdiction Police Agencies

In its 2004 census of state and local police agencies, the DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that more than 1,500 state and local police agencies served special geographic areas or had special enforcement or investigative agencies. Despite a wide range of jurisdictions and sizes, these agencies are generally termed special jurisdiction police agencies. While many of the individual agencies are not as large as county or state police departments or large municipal police departments, together they employ more than 85,000 people, about 50,000 of whom are sworn police officers. Although there are a number of ways of grouping these agencies, BJS has chosen to group them into five categories, specifically public buildings and facilities, natural resources and parks and recreation, transportation systems and facilities, criminal investigations, and special enforcement.

Each of these groups of agencies has a very different history, although many share in common having started as security departments, often employing retired local police officers. The largest single category of special enforcement police is represented by about 500 campus police departments serving four-year public institutions, which employ more than 10,000 officers. Two-year colleges and public school districts employed approximately 5,000 additional officers.

Another large segment is comprised of transportation-related police. These agencies cover airports, mass transit systems and railroads, ports, bridges and tunnels, and a small number of multipurpose or miscellaneous agencies; they employ about 9,000 additional officers, somewhat less than the more than 14,000 employed in the category of natural resources, parks and recreation.

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